THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Das Leben der Anderen)
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (2006), 137 minutes
German filmmakers, in contrast to their frank portrayals of Nazi horrors, have mostly dealt with the misdeeds of the Communist system by poking fun at the bumbling apparatchiks of the GDR in comedies such as Good Bye Lenin. Interestingly, 56% of the German people believe it is inappropriate to even discuss the Communists' wrongdoing and a rehabilitation campaign is now being waged by former Secret Police (Stasi) operatives who claim that East Germany was not a criminal state but only one that "served the people and obeyed the laws that were the laws of that time." A different point of view is offered, however, in The Lives of Others written and directed by 33-year old Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck who grew up in West Berlin.
Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and countless Lolas at the National German Film Awards, the film is a haunting look at the paranoia of the East German security apparatus in the year 1984, a paranoia that ended only with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989 and the eventual reunification of East and West. The film shows the Stasi using intimidation and disorientation as tools in operating a ruthless system of control and surveillance directed at artists and intellectuals suspected of opposing the GDR. While fictional, the film displays the totalitarian mentality in a way that transcends particular circumstances and is relevant in our country today with its so-called Patriot Act that threatens liberty in the name of state security.
Set in East Berlin five years before glasnost, von Donnersmarck and photographer Hagen Bogdanski capture the grey atmosphere of an authoritarian state showing in muted sepia tones its drably furnished apartments, bare offices, and empty streets. As the film begins, Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, masterfully performed by Ulrich Muehe, uses videotape to educate recruits about Stasi interrogation methods. In the tape, a man is shown being reduced to tears after fifty hours of relentless questioning, finally breaking down and revealing the identity of his accomplice. Later, during an evening at the theater, Wielser expresses suspicion about the true loyalties of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend, the popular stage actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), even though both are known to be loyal to the Socialist state.
At the behest of colleagues, Lt. Colonel Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), head of the Cultural Department and Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), the Minister of Culture who has his own reasons for ordering the surveillance, Wiesler has Dreyman's apartment wired from top to bottom. As Wiesler, identified only as HGW XX/7, sits in his dark office plugged into his headsets and tape recorder, he observes Dreyman and Christa going about their lives and it is not a comfortable experience for him. The gradual exposure of the expressionless bureaucrat to a different way of life that includes music, literature, and freedom of expression leads him to look at his life in a new way, a way that makes clear the arrogance of his superiors. It is the catalyst for a surprising plot that has numerous twists and turns and ends up as a powerful depiction of what it means to be human.
The Lives of Others succeeds not only by its broad strokes but by its attention to detail. An example is the revealing scene when Wiesler rides in an elevator with a nave young boy clutching his football. When the young boy tells him that his father hates the Stasi, Wiesler begins to ask him the name of his father, then stops in mid sentence, and inserts the word football for father. As Wieslers loyalty becomes shaky and Dreyman mourns the suicide of an old friend, stage director Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), the story takes on an added dimension, slowly building momentum until it reaches a staggering conclusion that is so moving, yet so understated that tears didnt come until I reached home.